Saturday, March 24, 2007

what now?

Habana 3/23 -- I'm rushing to get this posted. An unmarked car has just squealed to a stop outside my window. Two men in print shirts and jeans have jumped out and are clamboring up the stairs. They are being far too noisy in this ominous quiet that envelops the city.

They are knocking at my door. I must sign off.

What can this mean?

havana hombre

standoff at sea

Habana 3/23 -- I've just gotten today's copy of Trabajadores, the organ of the Cuban labor movement. It contains several items of interest.

In the lead article, Trabajadores reports that a Cuban naval squadron has intercepted and turned a "foreign invasion fleet." The article says that no shots have been fired, but that several vessels collided in connection with the confrontation, and that rescue efforts are underway.

In another article, Trabajadores denounces the "vicious United States propaganda campaign that accuses the Cuban government of leadership purges." The writer goes on to say that, "all the loyal members of the government of Fidel Castro have enthusiastically agreed to serve in various capacities under the leadership of Raul Castro."

Finally, on page 6, a small item: "Cuban security forces in Santiago de Cuba have recaptured the corrupt former party official Juan Carlos Robinson Agramonte, who escaped from prison early Thursday. Robinson Agramonte and a small entourage were intercepted in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra."

havana hombre


Habana 3/23 -- Nothing like a night behind bars to temper one's ideological enthusiasm.

I was forcibly detained by Cuban police around 1:15 a.m. this morning. No sooner had I left the office and turned the corner of Avenida Esperanza than I was enveloped by a crowd of retreating demonstrators. I struggled to hold my ground against the rush, but before I could fully assess what was going on, two uniformed officers grabbed me by the arms and pulled me aside.

I was loaded into a paddy wagon along with a half dozen others. All of us were shoved and manhandled and prodded, and have some minor bruises to show for it, but no one was seriously mistreated.

At the station, my protestations of Spanish citizenship proved useless. Phrases such as "disorderly conduct," "disturbing the peace," and "violating curfew." dominated the brief exchange and I was brusquely escorted to a large holding cell.

My cellmates for the night were a diverse group, and included a couple of pro-democracy firebrands who continued to shout slogans until fellow cellmates prevailed on them for some quiet, a couple of students whose concerns quickly turned from activism to what would happen after they were kicked out of the university, one gentleman who insisted in perfect Catalan that he was a Canadian citizen and an innocent bystander like me, a disheveled wino who passed out moments after I arrived, and a Cuban-American who said he was in the city on business having flown in from Mexico City only the day before.

Conversation in the holding room was muted, as we all contemplated the gravity of our situation. Finally, toward morning, I caught a couple of hours of sleep. I was awakened by the clanging of the cell door, and the Canadian and I were uncermoniously whisked out.

"Here are your things. You are free to go," the presiding officer at the desk intoned. I checked the contents of the plastic bag he thrust at me. My wallet and keys were there. It came as no surprise that my passport was not.

I shuffled bleary-eyed through the morning light. The city was quiet, the streets still littered with placards, burnt-out torches and other debris. I saw a few spent shell casings and at one corner the remains of a bonfire still smoldered. But there were few people to be seen, only a bicyclist or two.

When I reached the Malecon, I looked out over the Caribbean and the morning sun, which hung above the horizon in a heavy haze. The light silhouetted a number of naval vessels about a mile or so offshore. They looked to be destroyers or light cruisers. It was hard to tell in the haze.

Just outside the mouth of the harbor, two Cuban patrol boats cruised at idle speed in lazy circles.

I am back in the office again. The radio is still playing Cuban folk songs. There are no local newspapers yet. It is impossible to tell what has happened during the night.

havana hombre

Friday, March 23, 2007

night of decision

Habana 3/23 -- It is past midnight and the political battles continue in Cuba's capital city. I have returned to the office after an hour on the streets watching the ebb and flow of rival groups along the Malecon and other major thoroughfares. News of president Raúl Castro's heavy-handed cleansing of government leadership has spread quickly. The reported purges seem to have bolstered the ranks of reform-minded opponents, who number in the hundreds, if not thousands. But the police are also out in force, blocking parades of torch-carrying demonstrators as they move toward the zocolo and the center of the city.

Just moments ago, a skirmish broke out as demonstrators, many of them carrying pro-democracy banners and placards tried to outflank a riot squad blocking access to the Prado. The police, carrying rubber truncheons and shields waded into a group of 20 or so demonstrators, swinging their clubs randomly. Several demonstrators were hauled away screaming, while others were left bleeding on the cobblestones. One lay alarmingly still. The demonstrators retreated, but continued to shout anti-Castro slogans. "Castro, no, democracy si!"

Opponents of the government are not alone in demonstrating their views. Die-hard loyalists have also taken to the streets and reportedly have cordoned off several blocks in the old city. Crackling sounds can be heard in the area of the Almendares River, possibly gunfire, or perhaps lingering reports of celebratory fireworks.

At one point near my office building, the milling groups had reached a kind of standoff and I was able to speak directly to one of the armed policemen. "We are simply trying to maintain order," he said. "We don't want rival groups confronting each other."

I've returned to the office to catch my breath and to give myself a moment for reflection. But I know I have to go back out, however risky it may seem. History is being written in Havana and history is often an irresistible siren. This is a rare opportunity to witness dramatic and significant events. I find myself drawn to it, perhaps even drawn into it.

P.S. -- I had another phone call from Jorge. His unit was departing for Santiago. He has been issued live ammunition. His last words before he hung up were: "We are in a battle for Cuba's soul."

havana hombre

ministries close

Habana 3/23 -- At some point all politics becomes personal.
Jorge is on his way back to the capital. He is a captain in the reserves and is returning to join his regiment. He called before he left, concerned and agitated, but determined to do his duty to defend his country.
He could provide some news, having talked to his commanding officer. Allegedly, several cabinet ministers have been sacked. The ministry of culture and the ministry of health have been occupied by troops from the president's personal guard.
Jorge also was told that additional troops have been dispatched to Santiago de Cuba, where trouble is expected.
Raúl Castro himself was defiant in his television address. His demeanor was consistent with his "bad cop" reputation.
There is more noise and bustle in the streets as darkness begins to fall. Candles are lit in many windows. Occasional horns and firecrackers can be heard.
It would seem as if lines are being drawn in the grimy sand that lines the molo.

havana hombre

call to arms

Habana 3/23 -- A new flier has found its way through my mail slot, another hand-crafted missive from the Federation for Cuban Democracy. It features the Cuban flag and is headlined "A New Cuba Is Born Tonight." The flier carries paroles that only a few years ago would have been treasonous, and perhaps still are. "Give us elections now!" "Midnight Rally." "TORCHLIGHT Parade for FREEDOM!" "Let the new revolution begin!"

If I hold the flier up closely to the bulb in my desk lamp, and I can clearly read the watermark: "Hammermill Deluxe Velum." I chuckle quietly to myself. Paper products have been on the embargo list for years. It seems funny and at the same time it is not funny.

My friend Miguel has just left after stopping by for a drink. He had to leave his car at the office. There are police barricades along the Prado and the Avenida de las Misiones. He is concerned, not only for his business, but for the country.

He tells me that police have dispersed a rowdy crowd in Santiago. He doesn't know if anyone was hurt. The city is full of rumors, he says. One of his foremen has reported that Robinson Agramonte is back in his home town after being released by sympathetic prison guards.

According to the reports, Robinson is planning a non-violent campaign to reclaim the spirit of the revolution from the corrupt and feckless Castro regime. He will set off for the Sierra Maestra mountains together with supporters in the morning. He invites all people who support a true socialist revolution in Cuba to join him. He has allegedly made his campaign a spiritual one as well as a political one. According to the foreman, the rallying cry is: "From the mountain with cleansed spirit; to the capital with clean politics."

Miguel and I reflect somberly on what is happening. Though we are Spanish, we have lived for many years in Cuba and share a deep love for its people, culture and history. We wonder if the revolutionary spirit is still alive in Cuba. We wonder how many will dare to demonstrate against the ascendancy of Raúl Castro. We wonder what we would do if we were Cuban citizens.

How comfortable we've become with our Western lifestyles and our European values. How far from real political passion. Wasn't it Thomas Jefferson himself who declared that every generation should foster a revolution? How many Western generations have ignored that privilege?

In the distance I hear sirens.

havana hombre

Pico Turquino

Habana 3/23 -- Francis Milian, Jorge's father, has called. It turns out he is not quite so immune to the changing face of Cuba as he professed earlier this morning. He wants to know if anything is going on in the capital city. He wants to know if there is any danger of the revolution being derailed. He wants to know if he has spent his entire life in the service of a dying cause.

He reminisces about the days when the early revolutionaries sought refuge in the Sierra Maestre mountains in eastern Cuba. It was the most important time of his life, he says. "We were young and full of spit and vinegar. We had seen the dawning of a new world, a new civilization. We had all read Shakespeare's The Tempest, and we realized that modern societies must be built on equality and justice and science and reason, not on greed and superstition and privileges for the elite."

He falls silent. "Have you ever seen the sun rise over Pico Turquino," he asks rhetorically.

By the way, Jorge is home safely, still nursing a bit of a hangover.

havana hombre